UNC Health Talk

Family House Diaries: Getting Life Back After a Liver Transplant

Sheri Foster was born at UNC Hospitals in 1957, but it was the liver transplant that Dennis, her husband of 30 years, received there in May 2010 that solidified Chapel Hill as a special place in her heart.

“I was born when my Dad was doing his psychiatric residency, and we say Dennis was reborn with the liver transplant,” said Sheri, 52, of Morehead City. “That both of these life-giving events happened here makes Chapel Hill a very special place in our lives.”

Dennis, 56, and a long-time ranger with the U.S. Forest Service on the Croatan National Forest, had known for seven years that chronic liver disease (cirrhosis) would necessitate a liver transplant sooner or later. He was added to the transplant list on March 22.

Classic complications of liver failure – fluid retention in the lungs and stomach – hospitalized Dennis locally, and he was transferred to UNC Hospitals as he became sicker. The sickest patients advance to the top of the transplant list, and on May 11, Dennis received a new liver, donated by the parents of a young man in his 20s who died in a motorcycle accident.

“We cannot imagine that young man’s family’s grief or the difficult decision to donate his organs.”

“A young man gave his life that I could continue mine,” Dennis said, teary-eyed, clearly still in awe and gratitude. “We cannot imagine that young man’s family’s grief or the difficult decision to donate his organs. As the father of three sons, I’m not sure I could have done that. I pray that each time I do something right the rest of my time on this Earth, that young man and his family share in the blessings I receive from God.”

The morning after the transplant, Dennis was wide awake, but tubes prevented him from speaking. So he tapped Morse Code – a holdover from his U.S. Army days at Fort Bragg – that attracted the attention of nurses who supplied pen and paper. Later in the day he was walking across the room. Four days later he was released from UNC Hospitals, but not before a pizza party with his family and healthcare team.

“One of my goals coming out of surgery was to again enjoy pizza with my boys,” said Dennis, who had been on a restricted diet as his diseased liver worsened. “If my boys, ages 26, 16 and 14, had something on their heart, we always talked about it over pizza, and I had missed that. We bought $99 worth of pizza for the ward, Sheri and our boys were there, and I ate a piece and a half. Pizza never tasted so good.”

Upon his hospital release, Dennis joined Sheri at SECU Family House, a 40-bedroom hospital hospitality house minutes from UNC Hospitals. Family House provides comfortable, convenient and affordable housing for seriously ill adult patients and their family member caregivers.

“Family House is such a place of healing, where hope abounds,” Sheri said. “Everybody pulls together here, and there is support and inspiration. We like to say ‘in spirit, action’. We have hope because of our faith, which also calls us to encourage others to embrace hope. We do a lot of counseling with people, and it’s amazing how much attention you get when you stop, listen and just pay attention to others.”

Beyond his love for his God, his family and the outdoors, Dennis is a talented songwriter and musician and found inspiration to pick up the guitar again while at Family House. Two earlier CDs of original music written and sung by Dennis have found new fans there.

“Music has been a part of his life since Dennis was 9 years old.”

“Music has been a part of his life since Dennis was 9 years old,” Sheri said. “He seemed to always have a tune in his head and tapped his foot to a beat. But then, as his disease progressed, there seemed to be a silence, akin to giving up or quitting. I prayed that wasn’t the case, and believe a friend who said ‘maybe he’s just turned the volume down’ to pay attention to getting well.”

On June 26, a little more than six weeks after his transplant, Dennis went to the beach with his sisters who were visiting from California. “I got in the ocean – the first time in two years – and I had a blast,” Dennis said. By July 1, he had donned his green pants, the uniform of the U.S. Forest Service, and returned to work part-time.

“He’s well on his way to getting his life back,” said David A. Gerber, MD, professor of surgery at the UNC School of Medicine who headed Dennis’ transplant team. “Dennis’ surgery was very smooth. He had a very robust and quick recovery immediately after surgery, which allowed him to be released from the hospital in near record time. He’s had the recovery you wish everybody could have.”

And Dr. Gerber believes that the Fosters are the perfect example of why the Family House exists.

“For Sheri to be able to stay at Family House while Dennis was hospitalized and for him to join her there while we monitored his care is exactly why that place was built,” Dr. Gerber said. “Their stress levels were greatly reduced, and we were able to provide the level of care Dennis deserved without keeping him in the hospital any longer than necessary. They’re both demonstrative personalities who share a love of life regardless of what comes their way. That’s as good as it gets.”